Board play a point of emphasis

The lid went on the basket Tuesday as a teaching tool for rebounding purposes, and the guards, especially Alexis Hornbuckle and Alberta Auguste, were all over the boards. The Lady Vols shifted from the up-tempo style of the past sessions and began tapering down in preparation for Thursday's game against Middle Tennessee.

Tennessee has had four practice sessions since last week's win over Old Dominion with three of those taking advantage of all 94 feet of the court. The team still went full court Tuesday – especially to get ready for the pressure that Middle Tennessee is expected to bring – but the coaches also used part of the two-hour session to focus on rebounding.

A metal lid was placed over the basket to ensure caroms, and the players had to both box out and rebound.

Tennessee has done fairly well this season on the offensive glass with 104 rebounds on its own end. But opponents have pulled down 125 offensive boards. Coach Pat Summitt wants to see those numbers roll over to defensive rebounds for her team in the future.

"It's a mindset," Summitt said. "You have to want to pursue the basketball offensively. I think defensively it's all about ball security and not allowing people to get second- and third-chance opportunities. For whatever reason on the defensive end we're not where we need to be. We've really got to get better.

"You simulate in practice the best you can game situations – a lot of time we'll put the lid on – and make them have to get so many stops against our practice guys, which has been beneficial for us. We have to dial that up. We just really have to demand more."

Despite this being the final exam period, at least five practice guys have shown up for the past four practice sessions. They are skilled in the paint and on the perimeter and give the Lady Vols all that they can handle and then some. Their presence allowed Tennessee to use the down time between games to simulate competitive conditions.

"We just went hard against the guys," said Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who has been in charge of gathering the practice players. "We simulated game situations. We worked on different sets. We did offensive stuff, defensive stuff, different looks, we went in transitions, we went half-court, we worked on our rebounding, and it's all about who you're going against. They gave us as good a talent and athleticism as we're going to face. They gave us what we can't get anywhere else. We love them."

The guys get two items for their dedication – a pair of shoes and a pair of practice shorts.

"I wish NCAA rules allowed us to do more for them," Lockwood said. "These guys are giving us everything they've got and physically they're spending it and spilling it. If it were up to me I'd do a lot more for them."

The practice players do get one another benefit that is not material but could end up being worth a lot more – a recommendation from Summitt when they enter the work world.

"The ones who have been reliable and responsible she gets behind them and will endorse them 100 percent for whatever their chosen endeavor is," Lockwood said.

Sandwiched in between the four days of practice was a full weekend off, which surprised the players. It was the first weekend off since practice began in mid-October.

"It's like they were shocked," Summitt said. "I said, ‘Well our graduation rate is pretty good. We usually try to make sure you have time to study. '

"I think it's important at this time of year that you take into consideration the fatigue from preparing for exams but at the same time we tried to get in some really good reps up and down after our last game with Old Dominion. The one thing that I think they've done is really bought into working hard. We've been able to identify some areas of weakness."

Those areas were board play and getting back on defense.

"Obviously our rebounding has got to get better," Summitt said. "We've focused on that as well as sprinting the floor. I think we have to be a team that's willing to go full speed. I'd rather them go full speed and rest themselves (when needed) than coast throughout the game. We've put a lot of emphasis on that and tried to sharpen up all aspects of the game."

Part of Monday and Tuesday's sessions were also used to get ready for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are expected to bring full-court pressure in both man-to-man and zone schemes.

"They're going to press us," Summitt said. "They'll extend their defense both in the man-to-man and a 2-1-2 look. They bring a lot of pressure to the basketball. That will be a bit of a challenge plus they're very committed to getting up and down the floor."

Tennessee has two games at home this week – Thursday against Middle Tennessee and Sunday against Gonzaga – before heading to California for a two-game road trip prior to the Christmas break.

Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga should show the Lady Vols two different styles of play.

"With Gonzaga they appear to be much more committed to the half-court game," Summitt said. "They'll push tempo, but they're very good in half-court execution. It's going to be a contrast, I think, in terms of style of play, but that's a good thing, because we play a lot of teams that have a different look from time to time."

The Lady Vols will use Wednesday's practice to specifically prepare for Middle Tennessee. The full-court work is also completed as they now need to rest their legs.

Middle Tennessee is helmed by Rick Insell, who coached current Lady Vol Alex Fuller when she was in high school at Shelbyville Central. Insell is in his third season at Middle Tennessee and has compiled a 53-19 record.

"The main reason that I scheduled with Middle Tennessee is because of Rick Insell," Summitt said. "We've had a friendship over the years, and I recruited his players when he was at Shelbyville Central. I'm excited he had the opportunity to move to Middle Tennessee. He is doing a great job there and will continue to do so.

"When he approached me about playing, I didn't know at the time I'd make the decision to travel to Murfreesboro, but I do think it will be good for women's basketball, and it will be a game that will bring a lot of fans in and a lot of interest throughout the state."

Middle Tennessee agreed to a three games-to-one format to get the fourth game in Murfreesboro. The Blue Raiders will come to Knoxville for three consecutive years – Thursday will be the second trip – and the Lady Vols will play at Middle Tennessee in the 2009-10 season. Summitt didn't have an open spot on the schedule for a straight-up home-and-home series during that time – plus she has to get more home games on the schedule by administrative edict – but Insell kept pursuing his shot for a matchup at the Murphy Center, and his persistence paid off.

"He really wanted me to come," Summitt said.

The Lady Vols won last year 88-64 in an early season game in which Tennessee shot a scorching 63.6 percent in the first half. But the Blue Raiders hit 13 of 26 shots from behind the arc and made a game of it until Tennessee pulled away down the stretch.

"As that game wore on we just separated," Lockwood said.

The assistant coach is expecting a tough in-state matchup Thursday, especially with the offensive firepower that Amber Holt brings to the Blue Raiders.

"They're out to show, ‘We may not be in the SEC, but we want a program that's to be respected,' " Lockwood said. "They've got a legitimate first-round WNBA draft pick, and that kid is not going to lay down. She's got a lot of competitive fire. This game will test us.

"They will scratch and claw. We're going to have to have a lot of tenacity in this game."

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